Just managed to slip this final review in before the close of the month. It is another re-read and another book I haven’t read for 6 years. *sighs* Where does all the time go? This is a title which I have a lot of fond memories of and would probably feature in my favourite Christies list. It seems like I am in good company as well, as Christie remarks in the foreword to the book that it is ‘one of my own special favourites.’ Like many a fan I would love to know why she found it a ‘pure pleasure’ to write and why it required more thinking time than many of her other books.
For those new to the book, here is a quick summary:
‘The Leonides are one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. At least they were, until the wealthy grandfather, Aristide, is murdered with a fatal injection of barbiturates. Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior and suspected of having an illicit affair. While Scotland Yard struggles to find clues, the murderer has not anticipated the determination of Charles Hayward, fiancé of the millionaire’s granddaughter, to solve the crime from the inside…’
This is Christie’s 4th (?) mystery novel with a nursery rhyme and this re-read has definitely left me with the impression that this is a precursor to Ordeal by Innocence (1958). There is of course the setting of the relatively isolated family home, from within there is a tight knit community, with its own specific quirky and dysfunctional nature. Then both of them play around with the concept of the fairy tale. I’ve talked about how Ordeal by Innocence does this in my review of last year, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much and will start with Crooked House. In this earlier novel Christie gives the relationship between Sophia and Charles a fairy tale sheen, as the very crux of the plot is them removing an obstacle which is impending their romance. It just so happens that this obstacle is murder… Brenda Leonides, Aristide’s second wife and now widow, describes their meeting and subsequent relationship ‘as quite like a fairy tale.’ Yet interestingly, Sophia, later on in the book questions this rosy way of describing things and implies that their union had little to do with coincidence and fate and that Aristides went into this relationship with his eyes open, being perfectly aware of his wife’s little deceptions. It suited him to have that sort of a companion, so in a way he created his own happily ever after. In contrast I think in Ordeal by Innocence, when Rachel attempts to construct her own fairy tale of being the perfect mother, her endeavours are all for nought and actually contribute towards her own death.
Another significant parallel between these two texts is how the surviving family members, are keen that ‘the right person’ killed the victim i.e. the one whose expulsion from the group would be the most convenient, despite the characters knowing deep down it would be the wrong person. There is also the need to solve the case, in order to spare the remaining family members from rumours and suspicion. Comparing the two central victims of these books, I think Aristide is much more favourably portrayed, as the likeable rouge, than Rachel who is depicted as a damaging presence to those around her, despite her best intentions. On balance I think today’s reviewed title provides the most unsettling read, which is what earlier fairy tales tended to do.
Although it focuses on one particular family, there are a wide range of character types, especially when it comes to the women. For instance, there is Magda who is Sophia’s mother and an actress and there is Clemency who is a scientist and whilst she is said to be ‘ruthless too, in a kind of cold-blooded impersonal way,’ I think Christie does a good job at showing a more vulnerable side to her later on. The marital pairings in this book are also intriguing as Christie seems to have paired up the most unlikely of people. Though these bizarre combinations seem to work rather well, a point which the text explicitly makes.
I think there are some good puzzling aspects to this mystery, such as the issue of the motive, as initially because Aristide has his made relations financially independent, money doesn’t seem to be a likely cause, for quite a while in the case. A missing will also adds to the mystery; an aspect I had actually forgotten about.
SPOILERS WARNING (For Crooked House and The Murder at the Vicarage)
There is a positive army of red herrings in this book, (and yes, I did google the correct collective noun for herrings). One of the main ones is the idea of Brenda having committed the crime due to being in love with the children’s tutor, Laurence Brown and even a theory of them both being guilty is well developed by the characters. This is one I think most readers will pick up on, but then there is always that nagging doubt that Christie is pulling a double bluff on them, as occurs in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). The duplication of the name Laurence, (regardless of the spelling difference), heightens this uncertainty. Even when it comes to Sophia and Charles, we cannot completely write them off as innocent, as we all know that Christie is more than capable of having the stereotypical young lovers be the guilty party. I think Christie herself attempts to set up this sense of unease from the very first page with one of Charles’ first descriptions of the woman he loves:
‘she looked refreshingly English and that appealed to me strongly after three years without seeing my native land. Nobody I thought, could be more English – and even as I was thinking exactly that, I suddenly wondered if, in fact, she was, or indeed could be, as English as she looked. Does the real thing ever have the perfection of a stage performance?’
It is with red herrings such as these that Christie keeps the readers’ attention and their suspicions shifting around the different characters, whilst keeping their eye off the real killer.
So now on the killer… I think it is very deliberate that Christie separates Josephine’s first appearance in the book from the others and quite a while after the others. Moreover, Josephine’s entrance into the book is markedly different from the others, as Charles first encounters her, having just woken up. His blurred and unfocused vision gives him a very peculiar view of her, and it is reasonable to suggest that he has similar blurred vision when it comes to assessing her true role in the crime. This is a little ironic, given that his outsider status was to give him the advantage of a clearer perspective on matters. The way Josephine begins to unravel everyone’s perfected façades, places her in the position of acting as a kind of irritant, which shakes things up and makes things uncomfortable. This does not denote her out right as the murderer though, as amateur sleuths equally fulfil this role at times. Whilst she is not portrayed as anyone’s junior Miss Marple, I can definitely see a glimmer of Mrs Bradley. This is partially due to the way both characters are described, and I immediately thought of Mrs Bradley in The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929), when Josephine’s ‘beady’ eyes are mentioned. Equally phrases such as ‘malicious gnome,’ are very much in keeping with the names Mrs Bradley gets over the course of her cases. Like with Mrs Bradley’s unconventional behaviour, there’s even something rather likeable in her difficult and bold nature, such as when she talks about her brother:
‘He says women can’t ever be great detectives. But I say I can. I’m going to write down everything in a notebook and then, when the police are completely baffled, I shall come forward and say, “I can tell you who did it.’
Despite her awkwardness, there is a part of you which wishes she could solve the crime and show the male characters up; a plot trajectory which would not be implausible for a writer like Christie. I might be thinking a little too much outside of the box, but I was also reminded of the witches out of Macbeth, when it came to Josephine. Parallels appear in terms of physical description, as at one-point Charles says that: ‘her appearance had the suddenness of a demon in an old-fashioned pantomime. Her face and hands were filthy and a large cobweb floated from one ear.’ Also a bit like the witches’ deceptive prophecies, Josephine’s own comments to Charles about the case have more than one interpretation and as Charles says, ‘Josephine was always right’ – though perhaps not in the way you expect.
Christie tends to keep Josephine relatively out of sight in the first third of the novel, with Charles often derailing suspects from talking about her, wishing to ask a different question. Christie is also very bold and daring in that she has Charles’ father, the Assistant Commissioner, outline what killers are like; an outline which ultimately Josephine fulfils, yet I think Christie is good at keeping your attention away from the making the connection. That is of course unless you are Ben at The Green Capsule, whose little grey cells were on top form when he read this book.
Even on a re-read I still felt this ending had a lot of impact and Christie makes a sound choice in not completely vilifying her culprit. Though as is always the case, invariably, the book’s ending garners a lot of different viewpoints, as Christie super fan, Brad, is not so keen on it, finding it to be a little rushed. I do like his idea that Josephine may have enjoyed the notoriety of being a famous killer, but I also still really enjoyed the ending Christie delivers and as has been proven a short while ago, it makes for a great TV film finale.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Unusual Murder Method
Calendar of Crime: March (6) Original Publication Month